Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10; Mark 6: 1-13
July 5, 2015
Julie and I spent a week up on Washington Island in Lake Michigan as part of my continuing Education requirement. It was a forum sponsored by The Christian Century magazine and the Wisconsin Council of Churches. Those of you who know, know these are two rather liberal institutions. So before I begin today's look at the gospel in light of my week away, a word about liberals and conservatives. The Christian Century had a cover some time back with a familiar take on these two showing the liberal saying, “Conservatives are closed minded.” and the conservative saying, “Liberals are arrogant and angry about everything.” A radio resource of mine who goes by Father-know-it-all says that these are not the best terms to describe our differences. A better way to define these differences in theology is to differentiate according to belief in supernatural acts: Does the person believe that God has acted and still acts in ways we cannot explain or are the miracles of Jesus myths and legends built up to give him status? It is a question we each should face as we get serious about our faith journey with Jesus.
Back to the island, our speaker was John Bell from a town called Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, a man of Scottish origins with a wonderful Scottish brogue. It was wonderful to listen to that accent but it was an interesting start for me. For the first 15 minutes that he spoke, I struggled to understand a single word he said, his accent was so strong. But the rest of the week I had no trouble and his voice was music to my ears. The topic for the week was Reappropriating the Word; John is from the community of Iona, a worship community. He is a musician and has written music with an attempt to balance the theology of the old hymns with a newer style of singing. Every session started with him teaching us a new worship type response hymn. He never started by speaking but always sang. In the sessions, he shared much music and liturgy but the main idea I drew from our week together was the importance of asking our “what ifs” of scripture reading. As a preacher, I look at a passage and try to ask “what is God's message for this week?” I try not to come with my own message and force the scripture to fit (although I admit I have done that a time or two). As I read this week's gospel, that one phrase really stuck in my mind, the one I just shared, “ he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” And I took John Bell's what if question and said, what if that happened to us. And rather than ask what if we were in that congregation, suppose today that one of our younger members came back...let's say Kris Torkelson, he's done some theological work in college. What if he came back and we were all impressed with his work, but we also know a lot about him and maybe, like the people of Jesus' village, we take a little offense at his position. Then he heals a few of our sick people and leaves. We would be totally amazed and ecstatic if a few people were healed in our midst. That didn't happen that day in the synagogue. It impresses upon my reading the very matter-of-fact way that Mark viewed miracles; the supernatural feats of Jesus. The healing of several people is reported as just a passing occurrence in the account of Mark's gospel.
So what do we make of the miracles of Jesus; the miracles recorded in scripture? It is an area of division within the community of faith. A book that has helped me with this question is simply called Miracles and it was written by Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. It is hard to summarize a 270 page book in a few lines in a sermon. But the main idea I took from his book was the idea that miracles are always of a natural occurring nature. Not that they are normal, but all of the miracles of Jesus either sped up a natural effect or reversed something. There are no miracles that don't fall into the timeline of natural effects. The contrast to this would be a miracle from our storybooks; the prince kisses the frog and she turns into a beautiful princess. Or a prince being turned into a horrible beast until he learns to love. Those are completely different from what Jesus did. Here's how Lewis explains it, “Everything is connected with everything else; but not all things are connected by the short and straight roads we expected. By definition, miracles must interrupt the usual course of nature; but if they are real they must assert all the more the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level.” Miracles don't contradict or ignore nature but are acts of God that somehow change the “short and straight” path we would normally expect.
I understand that explaining a miracle is an impossibility. Because miracles are rare and unexpected and not-normal. If miracles were normal, we'd call them normals. And there is a real need in our Christian faith to make our peace with the miracles recorded in scripture. Again I quote Lewis, “In Christianity, the more we understand what God it is who is said to be present and the purpose for which he is said to have appeared, the more credible the miracles become. That is why we seldom find the Christian miracles denied except by those who have abandoned some part of the Christian doctrine.”
Miracles are a part of our Christian doctrine—the incarnation is a miracle. The virgin birth, the empty tomb, the ascension. We deny some part of the doctrines passed down through the centuries if we deny the Christian miracles. It is obvious that Mark was convinced of the reality of the powers of Jesus. He records many miracles but, to me, that almost throw-away line shows just how much a part of Christ's ministry miracles had become.
But for so much of Christianity today, there seems to be a need to explain away the miracles of Jesus. I was very grateful for the way John Bell treated God's word, never downplaying the wonderful mysteries involved in the salvation story. But he did give an option for one of the best known of Jesus' miracles-the feeding of the 5000. He suggested that perhaps, rather than a miracle of multiplication the miracle was that everyone was inspired to share what food they had brought for the day and when it was passed around, there was more than enough for everyone. This isn't a new way to explain away the miracle. And the non-supernatural believers have other miracles explained away—the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed was really the shallow Reed Sea and a strong wind made their path dry; Jesus didn't really die, he swooned on the cross and was revived later. My point is that we have the decision to make; do we stand with the faith of the ages and confess that God has the power to work these wonders or not. If not, it puts into question the ultimate miracle, the resurrection of the body. Our eternity is centered on the truth of this miracle. Paul is insistent, without the resurrection of Jesus our faith is futile.
So as I reflect with you upon our week away, I am energized anew to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, dead and buried... but resurrected from the dead that we might live eternally with him. And perhaps we have heard it so much that we, like Mark, are not as astonished as we once were, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” We know the old, old story so well that it can become very ordinary. Jesus died and rose again. Oh hum. But it is not ordinary, it is a miracle of God and now through grace we are God's children and our inheritance is eternal life in Christ Jesus. Praise be to God!
A couple more things I'd like to mention today. First, we celebrated Independence Day yesterday. We all have lots of worries about where our country is going; its lack of a unified vision, violence, debt, family crisis, etc. With our talk of God's power to work, I want to share a quote from Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't mention miracles, but does suggest that God does work in the affairs of our nation. “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise(or fall I would add) without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel.” As we celebrate our freedoms we celebrate our faith in God in guiding our country on its ultimate journey, wherever that may be.
Finally, we are celebrating the Lord's Supper this morning. When we share this meal in community we share it with the crucified and risen Lord. How this happens is a mystery and a miracle. Our Roman Catholic friends believe the miracle is the actual changing of the bread and the wine into the body of Jesus. Lutherans believe Jesus is "truly and substantially present in, with and under the (bread and wine)”. Both believe it is in the elements that Christ is miraculously and truly present. We believe that Christ is present with us in community in a holy and special way as we share this meal. We could say, present with us in a supernatural way. But we don't believe the bread and juice are changed into his body and blood. As we share the elements this morning; as we hold the bread--ponder the mystery of Christ here with us, the mystery of faith. When you drink the cup--remember the love that brought Jesus to the earth, to the cross and to resurrection power. And consider the fact that we are in communion with all who belong to Christ and are bound together in unity of love. Reflect upon the miracles of love and grace that have drawn us together in this place today, into the family of God. Let us never take for granted either the sacrifice that was made for us nor the wonderful grace that calls us as children of God. Jesus comes to us today, that is amazing, wonderful, exciting; that is a miracle not to be taken for granted. Let us rejoice in his presence. Amen.
How Firm a Foundation 361 PH